Berkeley school board discusses reopening plans, drafts gender policy

Photo of Jefferson Elementary School
Ana Isabel Diaz/File
The school board recognized the polarization of opinions on whether and how to reopen schools, and Julie Sinai said 'intelligent and intentional' work will be needed in order to reopen safely.

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The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board continued the conversation of reopening plans and spotlighted plans to aid marginalized groups at Wednesday night’s meeting.

While BUSD plans to reopen elementary schools with a hybrid model in January, Alameda County’s recent move back into the purple — or widespread — status for COVID-19 transmission has brought into question the feasibility of this plan. According to Superintendent Brent Stephens, BUSD will not be permitted to reopen schools if county or city health conditions remain at the current level.

“We simply do not know what public health conditions will look like leading up to January 13,” Stephens said at the meeting. “This change in status is a reminder that we are planning for a very dynamic public health environment.”

Stephens added that holiday travel and activity is anticipated to increase COVID-19 transmission and can potentially put the district’s plan at risk. Multiple school board directors, including Director Julie Sinai and Student Director Miles Miller, urged families to abide by public health orders and avoid seeing people outside their household this holiday season.

Some public commenters argued against the currently implemented Phase 1 of BUSD’s reopening plan, which according to the BUSD website began Nov. 9.

“Today America crossed the line of over a quarter of a million deaths from COVID-19,” said Jose Lagos, a member of the By Any Means Necessary caucus, or BAMN. “California is not the exception, Berkeley is not the exception, children are not the exception.”

BAMN has been protesting the implementation of Phase 1 for the past two weeks, as brought up during public comment by BAMN member and Berkeley teacher Yvette Felarca.

The school board recognized the polarization of opinions on whether and how to reopen schools, and Sinai said “intelligent and intentional” work will be needed in order to reopen safely.

During the meeting, the school board also unanimously passed a resolution to annually declare November as Indigenous People’s Heritage Month throughout BUSD schools. The resolution recognizes both the historical and current presence of the Muwekma Ohlone people in the Berkeley and Bay Area communities.

“This Resolution unanimously approved by the Berkeley Unified Board of Education is an important reminder to honor and affirm the many members of our school community who are descended from the Indigenous People of the Americas and to incorporate their histories and experience into the public education the District provides,” Stephens said in a BUSD press release.

The school board also provided an update on the June resolution in support of Black Lives Matter and offered a first reading of the drafted BUSD policy regarding transgender and gender nonconforming students.

The policy aims to cover a wide range of topics related to gender identity and expression, ranging from preferred names to participation in sports to restroom accessibility.

“The purpose of this policy is to foster an educational environment from Pre-K through Adult Education that is safe, welcoming, and free from stigma and discrimination for all students, regardless of gender identity or expression,” said Board President Judy Appel during the meeting.

Claire Daly is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @DalyClaire13.